Monday, June 30, 2008

Wes Clark Didn't Get it Completely Wrong

When General Wes Clark said this:

CLARK: He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn't held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded — that wasn't a wartime squadron. He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say, "I don't know whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not, do you want to take the risk, what about your reputation, how do we handle this publicly? He hasn't made those calls, Bob.

SCHIEFFER: Can I just interrupt you? I have to say, Barack Obama hasn't had any of these experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down.

CLARK: I don’t think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president.

He was probably speaking to an issue that goes beyond "fighter pilots" in general. And the biggest misconception was that McCain was a "fighter pilot." The plane that he flew in Vietnam was a fighter plane in name only.

The mission of an A-4 attack squadron is to attack and to destroy surface targets in support of the landing force commander, escort helicopters, and conduct other operations as directed.

McCain flew the A-4 Skyhawk--the plane that was used by the Blue Angels for aerial acrobatics. It was not the aircraft designated by the Navy for plane-to-plane aerial combat, however--and in the fighter plane food chain, it was, essentially, at the bottom.

I disagree with anyone who thinks that a fighter pilot isn't qualified to be President--the first President Bush was supremely qualified to be President and he was a fighter pilot. His qualifications stemmed from the things he went on to do later in life. I disagreed with him, I hated his policies, but he was qualified, nonetheless. George McGovern was a bomber pilot--and an extremely brave one, at that. He flew in a plane that was far more vulnerable. Supremely qualified, of course. Then you have the likes of Al Gore--a reporter in Vietnam and an enlisted man. A vastly different experience, but still supremely qualified. Then you get into the Veterans vs the Non-Veterans, and the discussion gets murky.

UPDATE: This is what I mean by murky.

Arguably, the top fighter pilot of the Vietnam War was a guy who topped everyone in the category of "air superiority," that is, the category of pilots who flew against other pilots. That wasn't McCain. McCain bombed targets and dodged SAMs and anti-aircraft fire. The stuff thrown at McCain was pretty lethal, for its day, as the Soviets were sending advisors into Vietnam to help the Vietnamese use the Soviet bloc-manufactured equipment. But McCain was no Duke Cunningham, that's for sure. And where the hell is Duke nowadays? I think anyone will tell you, even the best fighter pilot of the Vietnam War can turn out to be a guy who, shall we say, less than qualified to be President.

DDay makes several key points:

1) Clark is right. He's not blatantly lying about McCain's political service or even disparaging it. Earlier in the interview he called McCain a hero to "all of us in the service." He's making the simple point that military service and executive experience aren't the same thing. Because we've been saturated with this "commander-in-chief" stuff for the last 7 years, and this false notion that criticizing the President's policies equals "criticizing the troops," this dangerous blurring has occurred.

2) I seem to remember a post about the media seeing in McCain a certain honor that they recognize as lacking in themselves and that's why they constantly feel inadequate in his presence and continuously looking up to him. That's what this is going to be about. Bob Schieffer literally couldn't believe anyone would take on McCain's perceived strength, and now that Clark has done so the rest of the media herd will take it the same way.

3) I have few doubts that Clark will handle this head-on. Let's see how the rest of the Democrats handle it. Will they run for the hills screaming? Undercut Clark at the knees?

The important thing is context--and what Wes Clark should have said was, "John McCain's judgement as a fighter pilot was called in question long before he became a Prisoner of War, and if he's going to run on his military record, then in all fairness, that record is fair game, just like John Kerry's record was fair game."

And when you look at McCain's record as a pilot, including his bizarre claim that he was going to "make admiral," all you can do is shake your head:

"I have never heard a story, even remotely, that John McCain was going to be a flag officer. I was early selected for captain, in 1976, and I was regular selected for admiral in 1981. So it’s probably five or six years, I guess. I’ve never heard of anybody being selected for flag rank within three or four years of making captain, ever."

Retired Admiral John R. Batzler, former commanding officer of the U.S.S. Nimitz, also promoted to rear admiral in 1981, agrees with Retired Admiral Booth. "I made rear admiral in about five years. I wasn’t selected early, and I wasn’t selected late. I find it incredible that someone made that statement that John Lehman told John McCain he was going to be promoted to admiral two years after he made captain. First of all, telling him at all is not kosher, but we all know the Secretary of the Navy does what he damn well pleases, in particular John Lehman. This whole idea that John Lehman told John McCain he was going to be promoted to flag two years after he made captain sounds preposterous to me." All of the evidence, indications and comments that the New York Times published a flattering lie about McCain’s career on its front page are easy for John McCain to refute. All he needs to do is sign Standard Form 180, which authorizes the Navy to send an undeleted copy of McCain’s naval file to news organizations. A long paper trail about McCain’s pending promotion to admiral would be prominent in his file. To date, McCain’s advisers have released snippets from his file, but under constrained viewing circumstances. There’s no reason McCain’s full file shouldn’t be released immediately. In June 2005, seven months after he lost his bid for president, Senator John Kerry signed the 180 waiver, authorizing the release of his complete military service record to the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press. ** Unlike Kerry, McCain shouldn’t wait until after the election to do so. The Navy may claim that it already released McCain’s record to the Associated Press on May 7, 2008 in response to the AP’s Freedom of Information Act request. But the McCain file the Navy released contained 19 pages — a two-page overview and 17 pages detailing Awards and Decorations. Each of these 17 pages is stamped with a number. These numbers range from 0069 to 0636. When arranged in ascending order, they precisely track the chronology of McCain’s career. It seems reasonable to ask the Navy whether there are at least 636 pages in McCain’s file, of which 617 weren’t released to the Associated Press.

Some of the unreleased pages in McCain’s Navy file may not reflect well upon his qualifications for the presidency. From day one in the Navy, McCain screwed-up again and again, only to be forgiven because his father and grandfather were four-star admirals. McCain’s sense of entitlement to privileged treatment bears an eerie resemblance to George W. Bush’s.

Despite graduating in the bottom 1 percent of his Annapolis class, McCain was offered the most sought-after Navy assignment — to become an aircraft carrier pilot. According to military historian John Karaagac, "’the Airdales,’ the air wing of the Navy, acted and still do, as if unrivaled atop the naval pyramid. They acted as if they owned, not only the Navy, but the entire swath of blue water on the earth’s surface." The most accomplished midshipmen compete furiously for the few carrier pilot openings. After four abysmal academic years at Annapolis distinguished only by his misdeeds and malfeasance, no one with a record resembling McCain’s would have been offered such a prized career path. The justification for this and subsequent plum assignments should be documented in McCain’s naval file.

McCain’s file should also include records and analytic reviews of McCain’s subsequent sub-par performances. Here are a few cited in two highly favorable biographies, both titled John McCain, one by Robert Timberg and the other by John Karaagac.


"[A]fter a European fling with the tobacco heiress, John McCain reported to flight school at Pensacola in August 1958…. [H]is performance was below par, at best good enough to get by. He liked flying, but didn’t love it. What he loved was the kick-the-tire, start-the-fire, scarf-in-the-wind life of a naval aviator. …One Saturday morning, as McCain was practicing landings, his engine quit and his plane plunged into Corpus Christi. Knocked unconscious by the impact, he came to as the plane settled to the bottom….McCain was an adequate pilot, but he had no patience for studying dry aviation manuals…. His professional growth, though reasonably steady, had its troubled moments. Flying too low over the Iberian Peninsula, he took out some power lines, which led to a spate of newspaper stories in which he was predictably identified as the son of an admiral…. [In 1965] he flew a trainer solo to Philadelphia for the Army-Navy game. Flying by way of Norfolk, he had just begun his descent over unpopulated tidal terrain when the engine died. ‘I’ve got a flameout,’ he radioed. He went through the standard relight procedures three times. At one thousand feet he ejected, landing on the deserted beach moments before the plane slammed into a clump of trees."

Adds Karaagac:

"In his memoir, everything becomes a kind of game of adolescent brinksmanship, how much can one press the limits of the acceptable and elude the powers that be….The [fighter jocks’] ethos of exaggerated, almost aggressive sociability becomes an end in itself and an excuse for license. There is a tendency for people, not simply to believe their own mythology but, indeed, to exaggerate it…. Fighter jocks, like politicians around their campaign contributions, often press the limits of the acceptable. It is a type of mild corruption that takes place in a highly privileged atmosphere, where restraints are loosened and excuses made….McCain gives some hint in his memoirs about where he stood in the hierarchy among carrier flyers. Instead of the sleek and newer Phantoms and Crusaders, McCain flew the dependable Douglas A-4 Skyhawk in an attack, not a fighter squadron. He was thus on the lower end of the flying totem pole."

It's worth noting that Bush the younger was a marginal pilot who basically went AWOL--definitely as aspect of his judgement that should be remembered. Bush and McCain sure had that whole flying thing down, didn't they?

NOT LONG AFTER Reisner's delicate trip to Midland[summer 1976], Bush banged on the door of Susie and Don Evans on an otherwise placid Sunday afternoon and suggested to Don that they head out to the airport and spend a few bucks for a spin over the desiccated Permian Basin in a single-engine Cessna. Susie Evans, who had gone to elementary school with Bush, was a longtime Midland presence, and when she had been dating her future husband in Houston, she had frequently stayed at the Bush house. She had moved back to Midland, and after she had heard that Bush was back in town, she and her husband had frequently invited him over.

Her husband Don Evans... Willard... was a short, fastidious, narrow-faced oilman in his early thirties who was poised to assume control of the Tom Brown Company, one of the legendary older names in the West Texas patch. Bush had begun spending more time at the Evanses' apartment in the Windsor Courts, drinking cocktails with them and leaving his laundry for Susie to do. Bush liked Evans's politics, he liked that they were about the same age and that both of them had recent MBAs. He liked the fact that Evans's old man had landed on the beach at Normandy during World War II.

Evans said he'd love to go flying. At the airport he watched Bush stare at the controls, at the panel, and he realized that Bush-though not admitting it-had no idea how to fly the thing properly. After finally figuring out how to launch the plane, Bush pushed the Cessna hard down the runway. Evans screamed, "Give it some gas!" The Cessna's warning system was blinking and crackling. Bush tried to lift his craft fast, almost as if he were piloting a jet back in the Texas Air National Guard. The plane wobbled into the air, and the unsubtle maneuvering threatened to shove it into a stall. Now the rented plane was rattling in the sky over Midland

The endless petrochemical complexes, all the aluminum and steel and smoke stacks that pockmark the Permian Basin, were spiking up just below the aircraft. Bush nervously turned to Evans, put his hand on his knee and blurted in his self-mocking West Texas way, "Okay, Evvie, I’ve got it under control."

After more seemingly endless moments, he somehow got control of the plane again. He aimed the aircraft down, and the landing was as shaky and brutal as the takeoff. The plane careened off the runway and onto the desert. Evans sighed in relief. Then an unbelieving Evans braced himself as Bush suddenly and unexpectedly spun the plane and bounced back along the runway. Evans stared at Bush. He could see the fear and panic flooding his face. Bush pressed on. Evans had no idea why Bush wanted to go again. The plane wobbled uncertainly back into the West Texas skies, and Bush turned to Evans. "Hey," said Bush airily, as if he had just had an original, amusing idea, "let's fly around Midland."

The men began cracking up. Bush brought the Cessna back to the airport. It was the last time he flew a plane. Evans would be one of the three people at Bush's side in almost every public venture for the twenty-three years.

So was Wes Clark wrong to bring up the fact that McCain lost five planes in his career? Absolutely not. And I think the comparison of McCain to Bush, and the fact that neither one of them were particularly successful pilots, is an apt comparison to make.

Ask yourself this--if McCain were a Democrat, how many Republicans would be screaming about not getting reimbursed for those planes?

It's a curious thing to question someone's war record. The Republicans probably should have gone with a nominee who didn't have one.

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